The Research Triangle Park

Promises to Protect: A look at RTP’s covenants

By Aug 03, 2016

They say adversity begets creativity, and in the case of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, it’s true. What we know today as a thriving research campus was once just an idea — a pretty audacious idea — for jump-starting the state’s slow post-World War II economy.

But getting others to believe in that idea proved a bit challenging for RTP as it started to recruit companies. And that’s where the Park’s Covenants came in. The Covenants — a long, detailed legal document written by the RTP founders and earliest businesses — helped make the vision a reality by explicitly defining what the Research Triangle Park was, what it wasn’t, and what it would become.

To this day, the RTP Covenants explain what the Park should look like, the sorts of businesses it should house, and the way those businesses should share in the work of building and maintaining a research hub that could fuel discovery and innovation for generations to come.

“The Covenants are our identity statement,” says Bob Geolas, CEO of Research Triangle Park Foundation, the nonprofit formed to manage the Park more than 50 years ago. “It’s not written in the flowery language of a marketing document. It’s full of legalese, numbers, map coordinates, restrictions, and deadlines. But these Covenants are the nuts and bolts of what it means to be in a business community together, how we will respect our neighbors, how we will advance our mission through the thoughtful and careful stewardship of this tremendous community resource. The Covenants outline our responsibilities and our promises to protect this resource, and the details of how we will continue to make RTP the world’s leading research park.”

Today, RTP boasts 7,000 acres, over 200 companies, and 60 land owners. And as the founders well knew, managing the land and that many companies’ and land owners’ varied interests requires that everyone abide by some rules. That’s where the Covenants prove their value.

“The Covenants have helped create a place where you know the type of things that are happening here,” said Corey Liles, director of planning for the Research Triangle Foundation, which manages the Park. “But, still, it’s not homogenous. We work to strike a good balance between flexibility and building an identity. It’s about protecting the investment of all our land owners.”

So exactly how does this long and detailed legal document, updated multiple times since it was first approved in 1960, protect RTP businesses? Here are the highlights:

You have a vote. Use it. (Article IV)
If you own or lease business property in the Park, you are part of the Owners and Tenants Association, and you therefore have a say in proposed developments, land uses, and changes to the Covenants. All of these are subject to the vote of the Association. In general, land owners get two votes for every developed acre they own; if any portion of the property is leased, the tenant gets one vote for every leased acre, and the owner gets the other.

Yes, this favors land owners — and intentionally so. The land owners have a long-term investment to protect. But the Research Triangle Foundation works hard to create other opportunities for the smaller businesses who often lease property within RTP to get involved in the Park’s operations: Committees that manage security, environmental programs, and other activities around the park are open to anyone who works in RTP and is interested in its future. (If your property is less than an acre or used for something other than research, you aren’t eligible for a vote but you can — and should! — be involved in the community in other ways.)

DO build labs. DON’T build a night club. (Article VI)
The Covenants specify that RTP is for research-focused businesses. That means the Park features certain types of buildings — labs, data centers, offices — and not others — bowling alleys, hair salons, water parks. By concentrating similar businesses in close proximity, RTP encourages collaboration, facilitates efficiencies in support services, and helps ensure that businesses handling hazardous waste are not located next door to a healthcare provider.

In 2014, the Owners and Tenants Association voted on revisions (which were drafted by a number of land owners in collaboration with the Foundation) to expand the Covenants’ original list of permitted uses. That list now includes things like data centers, classrooms, and other facilities that aren’t specifically dedicated to research but support the business needs of a research company.

One exciting exception: RTF worked recently with Durham County to rezone a 100-acre parcel for the Park Center redevelopment project, which will include office, retail, hospitality, and residential facilities. By providing all the amenities of a thriving urban work-live space, Park Center is carrying RTP’s tradition of innovation into a new era.

Keep your building looking good. (Article VII)
A section added to the Covenants in 2014 outlines expectations for exterior maintenance of properties within the park. This is another one of those areas designed to protect everyone’s investment in the park. Your property value goes up — or down — with your neighbors’, so it’s in everyone’s best interests to keep the Park looking good.

To that end, the Covenants make a few requests: Companies must keep their buildings in good repair; remove trash and debris promptly, keep the landscaping groomed and in-shape. If something terrible happens — a flood, a fire, etc. — the Foundation can accommodate a reasonable timeline for cleanup. Really, all the Covenants ask is that we all be considerate of our neighbors, and they will do the same. It’s the golden rule of working in a business community.  

Etc.
The Covenants also contain a long explanation of the Park’s boundaries, complete with map coordinates. Article VIII covers the Foundation’s right to repurchase land if an owner decides to sell — otherwise known as the right of first refusal. And Article IX notes that owners and tenants agree to provide easements to the Foundation (with any necessary compensation) for utilities and projects that benefit the Park. The easement process recently facilitated the construction of walking and biking trails that connect the campus. “I think everyone saw that project as a benefit to the Park and employees,” says Liles.

And that’s the purpose of the Covenants in a nutshell: to help ensure that the Park continues to grow and develop in ways that benefit the entire community. Yes, they’re rules and restrictions. But just like traffic lights, litter laws, and noise ordinances, they are rules that help make our community better for all of us.

“Over the past sixteen years we’ve developed the Cisco RTP campus, growing from five buildings to twelve across 185 acres, and from housing less than 900 employees to more than 7,000 employees,” says Stephen Martin, workplace manager lead at Cisco Systems and the current president of the RTP Owners and Tenants Association. “During this time RTP has grown and changed as well. And through all this growth, it has been reassuring to have such strong guidelines in the Covenants to ensure the Park maintains its character and mission.”  

Just as RTP’s founders hoped they would, the Covenants have defined our Park and created a brand that’s associated worldwide with creativity, innovation, and forward-thinking land use. And that benefits not only the 50,000 employees on this campus, but also the entire state of North Carolina as well as people around the world whose lives are better because of the research and discovery that happens right here at RTP.